Not quite the right tingle

By David McKie (THE GUARDIAN, 20/04/06):

Since the general election almost a year ago, a group of like-minded people have been meeting in London pubs to examine what they regard as the sorry condition of left-liberal politics. Some supported the war in Iraq and some didn't, but at least they agree on much else. There is too much kneejerk anti-Americanism on the left, too much readiness to excuse blatantly anti-democratic regimes, too little respect for historical truth, too little courage in standing up for the right to criticise the value systems of others, including religious beliefs. Last week they published their first public declaration of principles - the start of a process, two of the protagonists wrote in the New Statesman, that might lead to a fresh political alignment: "a reconfiguration of progressive opinion". They called their document - now being fiercely debated on the New Statesman and Guardian websites - "the Euston Manifesto" (PDF).

There's an echo here of an event whose 25th anniversary was commemorated three months ago: the Limehouse Declaration, which founded the Campaign for Social Democracy and led to the creation of that meteoric phenomenon, the SDP. It was given that name because the final arrangements were made at David Owen's home in Limehouse, a place name that nicely evoked both authentic old London and modern, trendy, progressive London. Had they sorted everything out the previous day when they convened at Bill Rodgers's home in north London, they would have had to call it the Kentish Town Declaration, which would not have had quite the same tingle. I'm not sure that the choice of Euston by Norman Geras, Nick Cohen and friends was quite so inspired. Since Euston is known to the outside world for its railway station, the name seems to hint at transience rather than reconfiguration.

Choices like these ought not to made in a hurry. Some designations, such as Limehouse, carry a resonance that others could never do. Plotters meeting, for instance, in Tooting would be well advised to shift to another pub up the road, in somewhere like Streatham or Kennington. Other London districts are already spoken for. Clapham has already put two famous concepts into the language: the Clapham Sect and the Man on the Clapham Omnibus. Putney means the great debates of the Commonwealth, and Orpington the earliest sense that the Liberals might one day again be required to prepare for government. Selsdon, on the outskirts of Croydon, produced Selsdon Man, a concept evoked by a meeting of Edward Heath's shadow cabinet not long before his 1970 election victory, when the air was full of what we would now call Thatcherite thinking. And Watford, just outside London, is where much of the country is north of, a fact that Westminster and Whitehall are frequently chided for having forgotten.

None of these names can ever have quite the instant recognition and kudos, the sense that one word says it all, of the great historic battlefields: Hastings, Marston Moor, Naseby; Tolpuddle, Jarrow, Saltley, Grunwick (though that was the name of a factory, not a place), or for that matter Wimbledon, Epsom, Wembley - all conjuring up a whole world of passion and conflict in two or three syllables. There are one or two other political place names where a single word still suffices: Tamworth, where in 1834 the local MP, Sir Robert Peel, rewrote the map of Tory politics; Midlothian, for Gladstone's most famous campaign; and West Lothian, where Tam Dalyell asked questions about devolution to which no one has ever provided a satisfactory answer. But who now remembers the Hawarden Kite, the leak by Gladstone's son Herbert of the news that his father was now converted to Irish Home Rule? Or the Relugas Compact, where three of his senior colleagues plotted - in a fishing lodge in Morayshire - to pack the Liberal leader, Campbell-Bannerman, off to the Lords?

The Euston Manifesto, its authors explain in the Statesman, is only a preliminary step, preceding a public launch - much, maybe, as the Limehouse Declaration preceded the launch of the SDP. I hope they can think up a name for their launch that's both catchy and considered. The Cockfosters Compact? The Dalston Demarche? The Pinner Proclamation? Not really. If they must go on meeting near railway termini, they should certainly steer well clear of King's Cross, since that district is named after a statue, long ago extirpated, of that notably unprogressive monarch, George IV. On the other hand, this area used to be known as Battlebridge. "The Battlebridge Broadside"; that has a certain ring to it.